The following text was published in the MetroWest Daily News on Sunday, November 25.
On Hallowed Ground: The Civil War Sesquicentennial in Maryland and West Virginia
Historically speaking, New Englanders are spoiled. As the hub of the Revolutionary War’s most important events, we're able to tread the same cobblestones as the legends of American history.
Due as much to geographical convenience as it is to historical significance, most experience at an early age the people and places that birthed the nation. Teachers point out their classroom windows at nearby landmarks; students walk the Freedom Trail and are back to school by lunch; neighbors watch reenactments of the Battles at Lexington and Concord.
That war is more than 230 years gone, its results integrated long ago into daily life. To the victor go the stories. Paul Revere and John Hancock are historical heroes. Accounts, like the Boston Tea Party or the, "Shot heard 'round the world," teeter on the brink of folklore.
New Englanders, those from Massachusetts especially, accept and embrace their role as bearers of this epic history, in part because it is easy to do so; not many people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean take issue with the occurrences of 1776. Without diminishing the sacrifice of our founding fathers, visitors to popular sites like Paul Revere’s house in Boston or Minuteman National Historical Park in Lexington and Concord, Mass. float past exhibits and battlefields on a cloud of patriotic nostalgia.
But beyond the happy confines of Revolutionary New England, there are war-based tourist destinations that face a starkly different situation: where reconciling blood and steel for sympathetic visitors becomes less about a nation’s triumph and more about its tragedy.
Many tourist attractions across the globe, from battlefields to concentration camps to killing fields, open their nation’s deepest wounds to the prodding of outsiders. Closer to home, some of America’s most profound sites literally balance victory and defeat; hero and enemy; North and South.
Along the border of western Maryland and West Virginia, in a small corner of Appalachia, lies what is commonly referred to as the Heart of America’s Civil War Heritage Area. Part of the larger corridor known as Hallowed Ground, this region saw some of the bloodiest, most pivotal engagements of the 1860s.
A visit here, especially over the next few years as America commemorates the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial anniversary (1861–1865), tells the full story, unbiased even in the shadow of fraternal carnage, often giving visitors a visceral understanding of what it was like to fire upon your neighbor.
"While those lingering memories can sometimes tint the way in which events are commemorated, Maryland is in a unique position to portray the ‘brothers war’ nature of the conflict," said Mary Koik, spokesperson for the Civil War Trust.
The Hallowed Ground corridor stretches from Gettysburg, Penn. to Monticello, Va. Civil War buffs traverse the landscape like country music fans do Nashville, Tenn.
But situated just an hour drive from either Baltimore or Washington, D.C., are a multitude of powerful destinations that make accessible and worthwhile daytrips for anyone visiting the mid-Atlantic.
Driving west from the town of Frederick, Md., the Old National Pike (Route 40) marches through countryside pockmarked with an abundance of impressive historical attractions.
Less than 15 miles along Route 40 stands the original George Washington Monument, high atop a strategic bluff. This simple stone tower gave Union troops a panoramic view of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
A few miles away in Sharpsburg, Md., the grounds at Antietam National Battlefield are peaceful, with sprawling grass fields still organized by zig-zagging split-rail fences.
The canons dotting the landscape remind you this was not just farmland.
Antietam is so large the best way to see it is by driving the roads crisscrossing the park.
Personalizing the vast expanse are hundreds of metal signs detailing each moment of the brutal encounter. Engaging guides describe troop movements and how skirmishes were won and lost. The guide at the Bloody Road, a deadly sunken no-man’s land, will convince you there are bayonets bobbing up over the opposite embankment.
In contrast to New England’s Revolutionary War sites, where Redcoats bullied the ragtag militiamen, Antietam — the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War — is devoid of historical bias.
Both Confederate and Union soldiers are honored. The signs show no preferred side. The guides pass no judgment. Upside-down canons mark the spots where both Northern and Southern generals fell.
The tradition continues 30 minutes south of Antietam in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where guides dressed in era garb go about the daily business of the 1860s. This picturesque peninsula became famous for abolitionist John Brown’s raid.
Harpers Ferry does not shy away from its alternating allegiance, having been occupied at various times by both sides. Instead, the B&O Railroad still rumbles through the village, and the streets are lined with replica Civil War storefronts. The tangled and extraordinary history of this village remains its greatest asset, alongside spectacular scenery.
In mid-September both
Harpers Ferry and Antietam commemorated the 150-year anniversary of their respective battles.
Each location hosted speakers and reenactments. At the Memorial Illumination on Dec. 1, Antietam’s biggest event of the year, volunteers will light 23,000 luminaries — one for each casualty of the battle — along a 5-mile route.
There is ample opportunity to witness Civil War Sesquicentennial events. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg will be commemorated the week of Dec. 7. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address will also be remembered during 2013 with special events March through November.
"Particularly now during the sesquicentennial, much emphasis is being placed on remembering the more universal human experience and toll of the war," Koik said.
The Civil War story is a complex and difficult one. So is the retelling of it 150 years later. For a New England traveler accustomed to vilifying history’s foreign opposition, Americans fighting Americans is a new concept, but one well worth exploring on Hallowed Ground.
If you go
The Hallowed Ground Corridor: www.hallowedground.org
Dec. 7-9: The 150th Anniversary of The Battle of Fredericksburg: ”Fire on the Rappahannock," Fredericksburg, Va. More than a week of events commemorating this pivotal battle in the Civil War. Some highlights include extensive immersion tours and a lecture by renowned Civil War historian and author Frank O'Reilly. Visit http://fredericksburg150.org
Dec. 1: Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination: 23,000 candles - one for each soldier killed, wounded or missing at the Battle of Antietam - will bit lit on Saturday evening, Dec. 1 In the event of poor weather, the illumination will be rescheduled for Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. www.nps.gov/anti/planyourvisit/luminary.htm
More Civil War Information and Events: www.nps.gov/features/waso/cw150th/index.html
Michael Hartigan writes for the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass.
Read more: http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x719499134/On-Hallowed-Ground-The-Civil-War-Sesquicentennial-in-Maryland-and-West-Virginia#ixzz2DZFnvaAA